THE commander of a Cambodian military brigade singled out for criticism by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and US congressmen denied Monday that his soldiers committed human rights violations, as the Kingdom’s top military official prepared to meet his American counterpart for key talks on US involvement with Cambodia’s armed forces.
On Friday, eight lawmakers from the US House of Representatives sent a letter to US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates questioning US military aid to RCAF units accused of abuses.
The letter cited testimony from Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for HRW who appeared before a US Congressional hearing on Cambodia on September 10, as the basis for its concerns and came in advance of Monday’s planned meeting in Washington between Gates and Minister of Defence Tea Banh.
Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said that Gates and Tea Banh were to discuss improving military cooperation between their two nations.
In addition to RCAF brigades 911 and 70 – Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit – the congressmen named Brigade 31 as suspected of committing “serious abuses” during land disputes.
On Monday, however, Brigade 31 commander Sun Saroeun said that his forces had never used violence against civilians.
“As soldiers, we never treated badly any people in our community,” he said.
“We have helped them build their houses and have provided plots of land for social economic land concessions in accordance with government policy.”
But in a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a US congressional body that monitors human rights norms around the world, Richardson noted several incidents that challenged Sun Sarouen’s claim. In 2008, Richardson said, soldiers of Brigade 31 forcibly evicted villagers in Kampot province. The brigade has also been accused of participating in illegal logging schemes and unlawfully executing Funcinpec forces during the 1997 factional fighting, she said.
Following an October 2006 agreement, Brigade 31 was designated as a special “maritime security” unit eligible for US assistance. Sun Saroeun said that the US has since donated five trucks and a generator to his brigade and has also worked with it in a two-week workshop on military medicine.
The letter from the US congressmen, which was signed by Lantos commission co-chair Representative Frank Wolf, questioned the thoroughness with which the US Defence Department vetted Cambodian forces that have received US$4.5 million in military aid since 2006.
“While the United States should work with foreign governments to professionalise and train security forces to respect human rights and the rule of law, we must ensure that such assistance and training is not awarded to members of the security forces that have committed serious human rights violations and continue to operate with impunity,” it read.